“It is romantic, yes,” agreed Hercule Poirot. “It is peaceful. The sun shines. The sea is blue. But you forget, Miss Brewster, there is evil everywhere under the sun.”
Once, long ago, pirates and smugglers roamed this section of the Devon coast. Today, the island is home to the Jolly Roger Hotel, where a very different sort of piracy seems to be taking place. The hotel is abuzz over the apparent romance between former actress Arlena Marshall and Patrick Redfern, a handsome younger man. Three guests are especially worried by the gossip. Two of them are the lovers’ spouses, Kenneth Marshall and Christine Redfern. The third is Hercule Poirot.
Such an explosive situation is bound to ignite. One morning, Arlena is found sunbathing on an isolated beach, her usual habit. The only difference is that this time, Arlena is dead.
Evil Under the Sun is classic Christie, exactly what you hope for when picking up one of her books. There are colorful suspects, an exotic setting, an apparently impossible crime, and a victim who seems to have lived her entire life with the goal of someday being murdered. Poirot is at his most enjoyable here. His investigation seems more aimless than usual, but it’s all part of the plan. He even gets a little meta; when a suspect tries to pump him for information, he gently chides, “No revelations until the last chapter.”
This is clearly a crime rooted in the personality of the victim. Even before the murder, everyone reacts to Arlena far more personally than one might expect—people who barely know her call her “a menace,” saying “somebody ought to do something” about her alleged affair.
There is no such thing as a plain fact of murder. Murder springs, nine times out of ten, out of the character and circumstances of the murdered person. Because the victim was the kind of person he or she was, therefore was he or she murdered! Until we can understand fully and completely exactly what kind of a person Arlena Marshall was, we shall not be able to see clearly exactly the kind of person who murdered her. From that springs the necessity of our questions.
Arlena makes for an especially satisfying victim because she has such a strong effect on others. The hotel guests cannot help projecting their own emotions and insecurities upon this polarizing figure, which means that she remains a very real presence even after her death. Her husband Kenneth thinks she’s misunderstood, while his teenage daughter Linda wilts in the shadow of her vivacious stepmother. Fashion designer Rosamund Darnley is an old friend of Kenneth Marshall’s who views Arlena as standing in the way of his happiness. (Poirot, incidentally, has a little crush on Rosamund. Though ever the gentleman, he does enjoy searching her room, for the “pleasure of being around her things.”) Patrick and Christine Redfern seem like a nice young couple; both of them blame Arlena for briefly seducing Patrick away from the wife he really loves.
The other suspects appear to embody standard clichés. The gruff Miss Brewster, overly hearty Mr. Blatt, fanatical Reverend Lane, talkative American tourist Mrs. Gardener and her henpecked husband—are they really what they seem? Christie delights in populating her hotels with stereotypes, only to subvert the reader’s expectations, and the occupants of the Jolly Roger are no exception.
“All the same,” Mrs. Gardener knitted with energy, “I’m inclined to agree with you on one point. These girls that lie out like that in the sun will grow hair on their legs and arms. I’ve said so to Irene—that’s my daughter, M. Poirot. Irene, I said to her, if you lie out like that in the sun, you’ll have hair all over you, hair on your arms and hair on your legs and hair on your bosom, and what will you look like then? I said to her. Didn’t I, Odell?”
“Yes, darling,” said Mr. Gardener.
Everyone was silent, perhaps making a mental picture of Irene when the worst had happened.
The descriptions of the hotel and landscape are unusually vivid, capturing the surreal physicality of the beach resort. Bodies are everywhere: swimming, sunbathing…and dying. (We also see an early instance of Christie’s prejudice against “these women hikers—hefty young women in shorts,” which will reach full flower years later in Dead Man’s Folly.)
The murder itself is one of the all-time greats. Arlena is strangled while sunning herself in a cove that can only be accessed via boat or by a vertiginous cliff ladder that would be difficult to climb in the short time available. The hotel itself is cut off from the mainland; anyone approaching via the narrow causeway would have been seen. Those with the best motives also have the best alibis and vice versa. As Poirot’s sidekick Colonel Weston grumbles, “Seems a pity when a man’s got two perfectly good motives for murder, that he can be proved to have had nothing to do with it.”
The crime seems totally impossible at first glance and only grows more baffling as each piece of evidence further muddies the waters. The entire plot, once unraveled, is enormously pleasing. There is one important fact known to Poirot but not to the reader. However, the crime is still solvable without it; it’s not the missing piece of the puzzle, merely a backup to confirm Poirot’s existing solution. As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that this killer is enormously cruel and coldblooded; while the crime requires a great deal of nerve, one can’t summon up even a grudging admiration for the culprit.
The first time I read Evil Under the Sun as a teen, I was blown away by the audacity of the murder plot. On this second reading, I was more struck by Arlena herself, the dazzling center around which the whole thing revolves. The reader is warned from the very beginning that everyone forms their own snap judgments of Arlena. By the end, I learned that I had as well, and found myself likewise blinded by my own preconceptions.
Overall, Evil Under the Sun is one of Agatha Christie’s masterpieces. It’s a heck of a read with a wonderful plot and excellent characters, even if the victim ultimately comes across as rather empty-headed. It delicately treads that line between ingenuity and over-ingenuity and manages to stay on the side of ingenuity in a mad literary equivalent of a sabre dance, giving readers various clues that seem to make no sense until Poirot explains all. This book ably demonstrates Agatha Christie’s universal appeal throughout time.
The other point to raise – and I was keeping an eye out as I read it – are there any actual clues to indicate who the murderer is? Obviously Poirot’s given solution is correct, given the subsequent events, but, for the reader, this is a solution (and not the only one) that fits the given facts, rather than a solution that must be true. I’ve had a mild whinge at other authors for this sort of solution but if Dame Agatha was doing it, why shouldn’t anyone else?
For my taste, I very much enjoyed reading Evil Under the Sun. It might not be Christie’s masterpiece but I’m quite tempted to include it among my ten favourite Poirots. Above all for its well-structured plot, and its excellent characterisation.
Evil Under the Sun is available in paperback and ebook formats from HarperCollins.